The Shape of Design: Chapter 2

A 3 minute read written by Alaine August 16, 2012

A sunflower surrounded by r solar systems

Each week, the YP creative team meets to discuss a chapter from Frank Chimero’s excellent new book, The Shape of Design. Without fail, each chapter spurs a flurry of debate and discussion. It reminds us of the kind of work we want to do, and where we want our team to go (and grow).

Each week-ish (estimates are approximate), we'll be posting our thoughts on a new chapter. So here goes my recap of Chapter Two: Craft and Beauty.

Think small

A sunflower seed and a solar system are the same thing; they both are whole systems. I find it easier to pay attention to the complexities of the smaller than to pay attention to the complexities of the larger. That, as much as anything, is why I’m a craftsman. It’s a small discipline, but you can put an awful lot into it.
— Adam Smith, Knifemaker

We make big stuff at Yellow Pencil. Please see:,,, etc. These are big big projects, with lots of people and moving parts.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on craft with such little big systems. It’s hard to remember that solar systems are made of individual atoms; that sunflowers are made up of hundreds of tiny seeds. This chapter reminded us to keep a close eye on the small stuff, as well as the big picture. They have to work together.

Get crafty

Craft is an important concept for the work we do at YP. That’s why this chapter had us so inspired. Like he says, “Our minds say that so long as the design works well, the work’s appearance does not necessarily matter. And yet, our hearts say otherwise” (31).

Mostly, we make things for big organizations: cities, universities, big companies. But big doesn’t have to mean boring.

People have learned to settle for websites that just work. Uninspiring user experiences, visual design, content. Get what you need and leave. Forget about being surprised or delighted. And hey, so did we, once upon a time. But we’ve spent the last year bulking up our Creative Team powers. And now we won’t settle for something that just works. We want – no, we demand! – more. Let’s make online experiences that are inspiring from top to bottom, and every point in between.

Talk like a human

“Business” is such a funny word, isn’t it? Something about it makes people sit up straighter, use more syllables.

But when it comes right down to it, every business, product, and service is made up of a bunch of humans trying to talk to each other. But somehow we lose ourselves amidst a sea of jargon and acronyms. Do we talk about synergy with our grandmothers? Um, no. So why, as soon as we’re talking about “business”, do we get all jargon-y?

That’s what I love about this book. It talks about big, layered ideas. But it still sounds like it was written by a real person. Because oh yeah – it was. And it reminds me that I can (and should!) do the same with my work.

So talk like a human. Talk like you’re talking to a human. Because you are. And you are.

Needs more love

We all know that creative work gets old fast. Ever thumbed through a design annual from the 1990s? Or a website design from five years ago? Yeah, you can tell. And with the mountains of visual ephemera to be ffffound all over the web, how do you stand out? How do you last?

Trends come and go, but some design work is timeless. Charley Harper, Paul Rand, Alexander Girard. So what’s the difference between design that dates, and design that lasts?

Love, of course.

My favourite part of this chapter was the advice Frank received from his favourite professor in design school: “Needs more love” (33).

Yep, that's it. Therein lies the real point, I think. As Frank Chimero says, great design is “a beautiful union, where the maker was himself a material used in the construction.” You can tell immediately when people have put their whole hearts into their work. It grabs you in a way that a job-to-pay-the-bills never could.

It says, ‘Here is all we've got. This is what humankind is capable of doing, with every ounce of care and attention wrung out into what's before you.’

In conclusion

Frank’s writing tends to wander. It’s a pleasant wander – like an afternoon stroll through the mind of someone you wish was your friend. He talks a lot about the importance of narrative, and this book proves it.

He covers a lot of ground in each tiny chapter – there are so many treasures that demand your attention. It’s hard to draw out a single defining message because there’s so much to digest.

At first I thought this pie-in-the-high-blue-sky thinking might wouldn’t apply to my everyday work as a writer/designer/creative type. But the more we talk about it as a team, the more it’s helping to shape our goals, hopes, and dreams for the future of our work.

So... thanks, Frank.